Opportunity, obstacles as Georgia Tech returns from pause

Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner sends in instructions in the second half of the Pit Boss Grills Holiday Hoopsgiving against Kentucky Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. Georgia Tech won 79-62. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner sends in instructions in the second half of the Pit Boss Grills Holiday Hoopsgiving against Kentucky Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. Georgia Tech won 79-62. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

On the day before Georgia Tech’s first game since Jan. 3, coach Josh Pastner was without certainty about how the Yellow Jackets would play Wednesday as they return from an extended layoff because of COVID-19 issues within his team and one of its opponents.

“There’s going to be some highs and lows,” Pastner said Tuesday. “You’re not dealing with robots, you’re dealing with human beings, and momentum and continuity matter in sports. But in the end, we’ve got to try to go out and get it done.”

Tech will play No. 20 Clemson at McCamish Pavilion following four postponed games, the first three stemming from a positive COVID-19 test within the team. Pastner said what he wants to see most from his team is competitiveness and effort.

“Could we be a little off-kilter or balance and maybe not as effective in some areas?” Pastner asked. “Obviously, that can happen. But it’s just good to get on the floor. It’s been a long time since we’ve played.”

It isn’t only that Tech hasn’t played in 2½ weeks. Players and staff were quarantined at first, and then players gradually returned to full-contact practice, first having non-contact workouts and individual training sessions.

Early on, when quarantined to their dorm rooms, they did push-ups, sit-ups and jumping jacks, part of a regimen prescribed by strength-and-conditioning coach Dan Taylor.

“Just so you can sweat a little bit, just not sitting around watching TV eating chips,” Wright said. “Just did a little body-weight stuff.”

Beyond the layoff and disjointed practice schedule, Tech won’t have its full roster, as not all players have been able to return from COVID-19 protocol. (He does expect the full team back for its Saturday game at No. 13 Virginia. Pastner mentioned Monday that post players Rodney Howard and Saba Gigiberia have been practicing, and Wright mentioned Tuesday that guard Jose Alvarado also has been logging heavy workout hours since he was cleared to return.)

“So it’s been very different, and so this’ll be new and a first for me, as well, too,” Pastner said.

Tech, of course, isn’t the first team this season to return from a long break. After its second game of the season Nov. 27, Wake Forest didn’t play again until Dec. 31. Virginia had a 17-day layoff in December when four games were canceled or postponed. Pitt had a 24-day stretch in which it played one game, a layoff extended by Tech’s postponement of their Jan. 13 game.

Clemson, Tech’s opponent Wednesday, just returned from its own COVID-19 absence. After beating N.C. State on Jan. 5 to improve to 9-1, the Tigers were pulled off the practice floor Jan. 8 because of COVID-19 issues. They didn’t reconvene for practice until Wednesday.

Coach Brad Brownell didn’t return for another two days. In the Tigers’ return game, Saturday against Virginia, the Tigers made their first basket and then missed their next six, including five consecutive 3-point tries. Brownell subbed the entire starting five. Over the next two-plus minutes, the next five didn’t score, turned the ball over three times, prompting Brownell to again replace all five players. The Tigers fell behind 20-3 and lost 85-50.

Brownell said Monday that “I think we got punched in the mouth and our competitive edge wasn’t where it needed to be.” Among other postgame observations Saturday, Brownell said that his team looked “dazed and confused” and that Virginia was “always two steps faster than us.”

“We lost our edge and confidence (Saturday),” he said. “We just need to get back to practice and get back in a routine.”

Other teams have fared better in their returns, although Tech’s circumstances – shorthanded and playing a Top 25 team that likely is sour over its blowout loss to Virginia – do not offer much encouragement.

FSU coach Leonard Hamilton’s team won its return game (105-73 over N.C. State on Jan. 13) by setting a school record for field-goal percentage in an ACC game (70.7%). He praised his team for its energy and unselfishness in the game and said his players showed maturity in using the downtime to improve.

“Somebody’s going to deal with it efficiently, somebody’s not,” Hamilton said. “We want to be the team that deals with it, shows up with maturity and gets better so we can have some postseason opportunities available for us at the end of the season.”

For Tech, there also is the overriding pressure to collect wins and get in the NCAA tournament picture as the Jackets seek their first tournament bid since 2010. At 6-3, with losses to Georgia State and Mercer, the résumé is hardly popping. And the Jackets jump back into play against a formidable string of opponents. After Clemson, there’s Virginia, followed by Duke and Florida State. The four are a combined 31-9.

“We can’t let this be an excuse to say that, ‘Oh, we had this little break, so we weren’t really ready for the game that we have,’” Wright said. “We’ve got to use this and just be like, ‘OK, we’ve had a break, so we’re well-rested. We’re ready to go.’”

Pastner also said Tuesday that there have been conversations about making up the four postponed games – against Notre Dame, Louisville, Pittsburgh and N.C. State.

He said that nothing was official, but that the closest to an agreement was Louisville.

“Nothing’s been concrete yet, but that’s a possibility, looking at open windows,” he said.

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